In the 1840s, life had changed throughout New England, including in Concord, Massachusetts, the heart of America’s rebellion. Thoreau wrote, I have traveled a good deal in Concord” (Krutch 108).
He knew what he saw there, and what he saw, he began to despise. The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” (111). In 1775, ordinary men had dared to take up arms of rebellion and strike a blow for independence and freedom (Bowes 123-124). Yet, in the space of a few decades, the combined forces of materialism and technology had subdued the children and grandchildren of these freedom fighters and reduced them “to slave-drivers of themselves” (Krutch 110). Henry rebelled and deliberately sought a new life in which he could be free and independent. He decided to leave Concord and seek answers to the mysteries of life in the solitude of the woods and the beauty of the pond.
On July 4, 1845, the anniversary of the proclamation of the United States’ independence, Thoreau went to Walden Pond to proclaim his own independence (Literary 397). If the people of Concord had been swept up by the speed of technology and the lure of money and property, Henry would separate himself from these attractive deceptions and seek out the reality of nature’s truths. He stated, not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear, nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary” (Krutch 172). The quality of life throughout America was rapidly changing when Henry cast his critical eye on Concord. Where others saw progress and prosperity, he saw wastefulness and poverty. He famously stated, “We live meanly, like ants” (173).
The Transcendentalists were deeply concerned about the quality of life in America. A great tide of material prosperity, temporarily checked only by the crises of 1837 and 1839 and the ensuing depression, had overtaken the country. Everything was expanding rapidly. Virgin territories were being opened for settlement from Illinois to Oregon. Turnpikes, canals, steamboats, and railroads were rushed into being.
The fur trade, overseas commerce, whaling, and the cotton culture of the South, as well as the factories of the North, were bringing wealth to a happy nation. It was an era of good feeling, a time when the common man seemed to be getting his share of creature comforts. However, sensitive observers feared that all was not well. It was unlikely that care for man’s intellectual and spiritual nature might be submerged into the rush for easy riches. What would be the profit in all this material advance if it were not matched by an equal progress in humanity? The transcendentalists pondered. (Damrush et al.)
Thoreau responded by awakening from the deadly sleep caused by the hum of the machine and the pillow of dollar bills. Our lives are frittered away by details. An honest man hardly needs to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases, he may add his ten toes and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! Let your affairs be as two or three, not a hundred or a thousand. Instead of counting a million, count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumbnail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, there are clouds, storms, quicksands, and a thousand-and-one items to be allowed for. A man must live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and make his port at all, by dead reckoning. He must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds.
Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it is necessary, eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion (Krutch 173). Thoreau believed life to be too complicated and considered internal improvements to be nothing but furniture cluttering up a room. Americans were confused and believed that the illusions of luxuries were beneficial to their happiness, but the people of New England could not tell what an illusion looked like. They didn’t have the time to notice nature or distinguish illusions from the real thing (Sweeney 3). Unlike Thoreau, New Englanders lacked a passion for observation” (Literary 394) and focusing on nature.
Life in New England moved too fast to notice.